Thanks to a nomination from my sister Lee Anne, I was named a Distinguished Alumnus of Maumee High School in Maumee, Ohio last Saturday. What a humbling experience.
It was a wonderful evening. All three of my sisters attended, two of my sons, a nephew and his wife, a niece, and of course, my wonderful husband. It was so nice to reconnect with family and friends, and to visit once again, my alma mater. As Dorothy says in “The Wizard of Oz,” “There’s no place like home.”
High school was a time of amazing growth for me. I made lifelong friends — the Brainy Babes. We still spend time together after all these years. My teachers were encouraging, independent-thinking, and questioning. They instilled in me a love of learning that is still with me today. Being a member of the first-ever girls cross country team taught me the lessons of teamwork and cooperation as well as the concept that you can almost always push yourself a little bit further. Imagine my delight when I learned that Coach Tomczek, my cross country coach, had flown in from Arizona to present an award that evening. Seeing him brought back so many cherished memories!
As I listened to speeches of fellow honorees, I started thinking about how Maumee High School shaped my life. Education is truly the most effective socio-economic equalizer. My family wasn’t poor, but we were certainly on the lower end of middle class. We didn’t want for the necessities, but there were six children — so not a lot of extras. My parents worked hard to make sure each of us had the opportunity for a better life, and all six of us worked during high school and during summer “vacation.”
After the banquet, I was asked if my dad ever worked part-time for a funeral home. When I said yes, Mr. Hileman told me my father drove a hearse for him, something he did in addition to working a full-time factory job. Dad and Mom also worked at the Mud Hens’ baseball games, selling and taking tickets. Mom even worked her way into becoming the team’s Business Manager!
My parents taught me the value of hard work. Mom also passed along her love of reading. My teachers taught me the value of listening and questioning. Coach Tomczek instilled in me that you need to keep running (going) even though it hurts. And believe me, Wednesday sprint intervals hurt. My goal was to never come in last. (I didn’t.) I thought that was Coach’s goal too; turns out I was wrong. His goal was for all of us runners to gain confidence and to never, ever give up. All of them taught me the importance of working together to accomplish goals.
These lessons have been instrumental in persevering during life’s challenges. From the all-nighters during college, law school, and trials — and when babies have ear infections — to the heartbreak of my parent’s deaths, I remember the lessons taught and the love given. Perhaps most poignant, I understand the sacrifices made to teach those lessons, and it fills me with such appreciation and love. Here I am, being honored as a Distinguished Alumnus, when it is I who am so grateful to others. It is I who look at the people in my life and think they should be honored. “They” who not only told me, but showed me how to keep going. “They” who taught me that tests need to be taken, children need to be dressed, fed, and sent to school. Laundry has to be done, and you need to go to work.
My parents, my sister Lee Anne, and my teachers — they all encouraged me to apply to law school when I wasn’t sure I would be accepted. I was.
It is because of my family and teachers that I have had the confidence to keep striving, to pursue different avenues in life. I’ve worked at Legal Aid representing low income clients in civil cases; I’ve taught college students and law students; I’ve represented prison officials and employees; I’ve handled civil and criminal cases as an assistant prosecutor; I’ve run for elected office, and am the Delaware County Prosecutor; and now I find myself looking ahead at possibilities yet to come. None of us know what the future will bring, but with certainty I can look to the past and see how fortunate I am.
Thank you to the Delaware Community for trusting me to serve you. Thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you, Coach Tomczek, and thank you to all the teachers at Maumee High School who believed in me! You are all on my personal Distinguished Wall of Fame!
Carol O’Brien is Delaware County Prosecutor.